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Gotta Know People

March 1, 2007
Five things your should know about every employee (if you want to keep them).

In these times of “Talent Wars,” where competitors poach and steal the best talent from anywhere they can find it, managers need to be sure their top talent's desire to stay in the current situation can overcome any offers from those wooing them.

The best way to stay connected to the employees you can't afford to lose (isn't this the vast majority?) is to take the time to know them as people before getting to know them as your top producers. If you can easily and correctly answer the following 5 questions, you have established the connection the best workers desire in a working relationship.

  1. What is most important to them?

    Imagine this true-life situation: A new manager is frustrated with an employee's frequent absenteeism and decides he needs to handle the situation swiftly. When she didn't show up for work one day, he lets her know she is no longer employed — with a voice mail. Why wasn't she at work or answering her phone? She was with her sick daughter in the hospital.

    Heartless or efficient? How about — clueless. One of the most important pieces of information a manager needs to understand about any employee is what is most important to him or her. I have seen managers do irreparable damage by making religious jokes in front of people whose faith is paramount. I have witnessed managers making rude remarks not having any idea the negative impact on the respect that employee had for them. Firing a person while she is at the hospital with her sick daughter?

    Not only is this not being informed about what's going on in the life of an important employee, think of the message that action sent to everyone else. The collateral damage is just as destructive as the damage done with the fired employee. In the all-too-frequent run and gun managerial style pervading workplaces today, everything is in panic speed. Get to know your employees? No time. Let them get to know you, the manager, as a person? No time. Work through pains of relationship building with talent that will cost the average employer $15,000 to replace? No time.

    Everyone makes decisions based on priorities. Get a jump on the day, or get the morning workout in? Work late, or see the kids before they are in bed? Take your sick child to the hospital, or go to work?

    The better you understand people's priorities and what is most important in their lives, you will better understand the choices they make. The boss that fired this employee is not some devil spawn jerk; he was just completely uninformed and too busy to find out, until after the fact — too late.

  2. What are their goals in life?

    I'm still amazed at the number of people in my audiences who don't set specific goals for themselves and write them down. So why ask, if people typically don't have goals written down? Because those who have made the effort to write down their goals are obviously goal driven and to discover what their goals are is to show interest in them.

    The next step is to see how you can help them achieve those goals. Sometimes simple support, encouragement and accountability can be tremendously valuable in helping those goals to become realities.

    What about those people who shrug their shoulders in an “I dunno” manner when you ask that question? You've discovered an opportunity to teach. Teach them how beneficial goal-setting can be. Share your written list with them (guess you better be goal-driven as well), inspire them to think bigger, challenge them with a homework assignment to take the time to write out at least 25 goals, and then review them together. This is employee development and connection at its best.

    The top talent you can't afford to lose will respond favorably to your interest in helping them achieve success in what's important to them.

  3. What is the best motivation technique for them to thrive?

    One size doesn't fit all when it comes to motivational tools. Some managers believe no one can be motivated unless they want to be motivated; therefore, they only want to hire those who are self-motivated. I would disagree with this concept, because something is the trigger to move people to higher levels of performance and commitment, and that is motivation.

    Sometimes the best way to find out exactly what would get an employee motivated is to ask them. What a concept! Simply ask them in what way they would like you to recognize them for something they accomplished of significance. Listen. Take notes. Keep it straight. The fact that you would even ask such a question will be so unique that many of your employees will be dumbstruck. And that is the connection that starts the motivation all by itself.

    What if an employee says the ultimate motivation would be a half day off with pay? Does that scare you? Why should it? Just set the goal commensurate with the recognition. If the half day would cost you $500, but the new idea or client or concept was worth much more than that to the company above and beyond normal performance, would it be worth it? You bet! Not to mention how stoked that employee will be to do the next higher level goal to be obtained. Google has realized younger workers with the best talent desire time off, so Google gives them the flexibility to set their own hours. The only requirement is they get their work accomplished properly and on time. The time they save by being great at what they do? It's now time off with pay. It's one of their highest rated benefits and strongest motivational tools.

  4. What do they value most?

    Learning what a person values gives you great information. You know what they enjoy doing, what they see themselves to be good at, and what they enjoy sharing with others. How can you use this strength in the workplace? How can you use that as a recognition opportunity? How can you support that interest and help them develop it further? How can you ask questions about that interest as a point of connection?

    When someone takes interest in what a person values, it creates an instant connection and appreciation across generations. You can reach people easiest when you understand what they value most and express a sincere interest in learning more.

    While in Columbus, Ohio on business, I wandered into an Anime convention with 5,000 attendees aged 14 to 24 from across the country. Anime is the Japanese style of animation that I first saw as a kid in Speed Racer. The convention attendees were dressed in costumes from anime video games and cartoons. In my suitcoat, I was the one who stuck out the most! After walking into their completely foreign world I spent hours asking these kids why they were there and why they were dressed up. I learned the convention ran three days with scheduled programming 24 hours a day. The costumes are expensive, the commitment is strong, and they value the opportunity to play a role.

    People my age typically find it hard to connect with this age group, but once I started showing interest and asking meaningful questions I had great conversations because I took an interest in what they valued.

    I even took pictures with a couple of those most elaborately costumed. Were they freaks? No. A warehouse manager, a children's librarian and a mechanical engineer were among the people I met. The costuming was how they celebrated an experience they valued.

  5. What is a deal-breaker in a working relationship?

    Before approaching any sales prospect or negotiation situation, most people know where the deal-breaking point is. Salespeople know how far they can negotiate on price, delivery dates, and value add-ons. In the dating scene people know which behaviors are deal-breakers for relationships. The same evaluation occurs in the boss/employee relationship. What are the acceptable behaviors, what are the behaviors that can be tolerated if not appreciated, and what are the “Don't go there” actions or behaviors?

As a manager, you know what you will not accept from employees. You freely make it known how not to act, so it is common knowledge. Employees don't get to make such pronouncements. Usually, they make their statements with their feet, as in walking out the door. The best way to stop the exodus is to ask your employees what are the deal-breakers in the behaviors of a manager or boss. Listen closely, because this will tell you where to fear to tread if you plan on keeping your talent present and thriving!

Reaching employees and making connections is challenging. Be sure you create the right environment for employees to feel the connection and give you the best talent they have to offer. Start today gathering the answers to these questions; your employees will thank you and your retention of talent will improve.

The author is president of Russell J. White International Inc., Lake Wylie, S.C., and known in speaking and consulting circles as “The Big Guy.” He is an author, trainer and international speaker with 25 years of experience as a Fortune 500 manager and consultant. White is the author of “Debunking the Designated Decoy: Get to the truth in your organization!” and “Little White Truths: Lessons for Leadership.” His articles appear in national trade magazines and regional business newspapers. White can be reach at (877) 275-9468 or by e-mail at [email protected]. Visit his Web site at

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